J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Fife as a Cause of Travels and Disasters

I spent yesterday afternoon at the Lexington Fife & Drum Muster (shown above during the “F Troop” congregation of members from all the units present, led somewhat casually by members of the host group). So it seemed appropriate to share John Greenwood’s memoir of becoming a fifer, and what that led him into.

About this period [1770] I commenced learning to play upon the fife, and, trifling as it may seem to mention the circumstance, it was, I believe, the sole cause of my travels and disasters.

I was so fond of hearing the fife and drum played by the British that somehow or other I got possession of an old split fife, and having made it sound by puttying up the crack, learned to play several tunes on its sufficiently well to be fifer in the militia company of Captain Gay. This was before the war some years, for I think I must have been about nine or ten years old. The flag of the company was English; so were they all then.
The captain must have been coppersmith Martin Gay (1726-1809). Gay’s politics are interesting because he was obviously torn. In December 1770, he hosted a spinning-bee, generally a Whig activity. But in 1774 he affirmed his loyalty to the Crown, and left Boston with the British troops in 1776. Then he returned to Massachusetts in the late 1780s, rejoined his old meeting-house, and eventually died at home.

But back to young John Greenwood:
At the age of thirteen I was sent eastward to a place called Falmouth (Portland), 150 miles from Boston, to live with my father’s only brother, whom I was named after. . . .

My uncle was lieutenant of an independent [militia] company (the Cadets), and of course I was engaged to play the fife while they were learning to march, a pistareen an evening for my services keeping me in pocket-money. Being thus early thrown into the society of men and having, as it were, imbibed the ardor of a military spirit; being moreover the only boy who knew how to play the fife in the place, I was much caressed by them.
Moving on! In April 1775, word of the Battle of Lexington and Concord reached Maine. John, who turned fifteen on 17 May, decided to return to Boston to see his parents, whom he was already missing. He left secretly early one Sunday morning when his uncle and everyone else was in meeting.
As I traveled through the different towns the people were preparing to march toward Boston to fight, and as I had my fife with me—yes, and I was armed likewise with a sword—I was greatly caressed by them. Stopping at the taverns where there was a muster, out came my fife and I played them a tune or two; they used to ask me where I came from and where I was going to, and when I told them I was going to fight for my country, they were astonished such a little boy, and alone, should have such courage. Thus by the help of my fife I lived, as it were, on what it usually called free-quarters nearly upon the entire route.
John managed to reach the Charles River, only to find that there was no way into besieged Boston. Charlestown was still intact; it wouldn’t be burned down until the Battle of Bunker Hill. But there were no families around.
Charlestown was at the time generally deserted by the inhabitants, and the houses were, with few exceptions, empty; so, not knowing what to do nor where to go and without a penny in my pockets, if I remember rightly, I entered a very large tavern that was filled with all descriptions of people.

Here I saw three or four persons whom I knew, and, my fife sticking in the front of my coat, they asked me, after many questions, to play them a tune. I complied forthwith, but although the fife is somewhat of a noisy instrument to pay upon, it could hardly be heard for the din and confusion around.

After I had rattled off several tunes, there was one Hardy Pierce who, with Enoch Howard and three or four others, invited me to go up to Cambridge to their quarters, as they called it. When there they tried to persuade me to enlist as a fifer, telling me it was only for eight months, and that I would receive eight dollars a month and be found in provisions; moreover, they calculated to quickly drive the British from Boston, when I would have an opportunity of seeing my parents.
Thus John Greenwood became fifer for Capt. T. T. Bliss’s company.

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